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April 17, 1997

Automated classroom scheduling expected to yield improvements

Countless faculty members probably have walked into a class armed with a box of chalk only to find that the classroom they have been assigned has a marker board. Others may have shown up for class carrying maps or transparencies, and then discovered that their room lacked map hooks or an overhead projector.

Because some faculty have a habit of moving equipment and furnishings from one classroom to another without informing anyone, no system will ever exist to end all classroom assignment problems. However, Pitt faculty in the relatively near future should encounter fewer annoyances involving their classroom assignments thanks to a new computerized scheduling system being installed by the Office of the Registrar. Known as the Automated Classroom Scheduling System (ACSS), software for the program is expected to be in place for spring 1998. When in operation, the system should make it far more likely for faculty to be assigned to rooms that meet the requirements of the courses they teach. In addition, ACSS will allow for a rapid switch to another suitable room in the event of an emergency, such as a leaky ceiling. "I think the folks in my department do a pretty good job now in conjunction with folks in other departments in trying to match up faculty and classrooms with instructional needs," said University Registrar Sam Conte. "But this will allow us to have the stuff in a database where the system can make decisions with better information that hopefully will accommodate faculty with better space." ACSS contains three elements – Schedule25, Resource25 and Model25.

* Schedule25, the largest of the three elements, is a space scheduling algorithm designed to quickly and efficiently generate classroom assignments. It allows for pre-assignment of classes when necessary and is capable of processing all course sections requiring assignments (3,000-4,000 per term) in less than one minute. Under the current system, according to Conte, it takes "probably weeks" to process the same amount of information.

"It not only will help us to improve utilization, but also will allow us more time to react to changes that departments might need," Conte said.

* Resource25 is a space management application that will allow the Office of the Registrar to keep up-to-date records on every class and event scheduled in a Pitt classroom. Hotels use a similar software to track their rooms.

* Model25 is a space analysis and planning tool that can look at current classroom schedules and provide visual reports and graphs for the analysis of classroom utilization. It can project how removal of a classroom, or classrooms, from use will affect the scheduling of classes.

University administrators and planners also will be able to use the Model25 segment of the system to determine the sizes of classrooms most in demand and the features those classrooms contain. According to Conte, Model25 will accommodate "what if" scenarios, identify their impact and give planners a better idea of what designs to use when renovating old classrooms or building new classrooms.

Currently, Conte said, classroom scheduling is essentially a manual process that starts months in advance of a term. Registration for the fall term, for instance, began March 17. In order to develop a classroom schedule for fall 1997, staff in the registrarπs office began working on classroom assignments in October 1996.

"The process is long, drawn out, labor intensive and very, very, very tedious," said Conte.

The current system also does not insure the optimum use of classroom space. Neither does it allow for rapid change or the timely analysis of data on classroom use. A term can be three weeks old before the Registrarπs office learns of problems or spots a better way to do something, according to Conte. ACSS will be able to make that information available in a minute or two.

Within the database of ACSS will be physical facts on each University classroom, such as the building where it is located, seating capacity, whether the seating is fix or moveable, whether the room is seminar style or traditional, with a flat or slanted floor, accessible to the disabled, equipped with computer links and/or audio visual equipment.

"This system, in reviewing things, will not just look at something like classroom size, but all of these other features as well and do the best job of matching up [a course with a room]," Conte said.

Faculty will have input by listing up to four preferences in a classroom. Not every faculty member, of course, will be able to get his or her first choice in a room. The new scheduling system will be able to tell faculty that quickly, though, as well as let them know if their second and third or fourth choices are available.

"Certainly, we are going to be feeling our way through this and I anticipate that there may be some glitches," Conte said. "I think there always is when you put in a new system." In hopes of limiting problems, Conte has begun meeting with deans and staff from the Registrarπs office with department representatives from each academic unit. The purpose of those meetings is to collect department profiles that will indicate what types of classrooms each department requires.

"That will help us to build a database so when we run this optimizing algorithm, it will know for instance to put a law professor in a law classroom with certain features," Conte said.

Cost of the software and licensing used in ACSS is about $61,000. Conte said the system will save money by making the Registrarπs office more efficient and reducing paperwork. Currently the Registrarπs office sends out two different course update forms that are three and five pages long, and expensive to print. ACSS will trim those forms down to one page. "Just getting rid of printing thousands upon thousands of multi-part forms every year is going to save money," Conte said. "And a lot of trees, too." Although Conte is certain the University will save money with ACSS, he does not as yet know how much money will be saved. "Until we have it up and running, it is going to be difficult to see where all the efficiencies or cost savings or cost avoidances are," Conte explained.

One reason the registrar is certain that ACSS is a good investment for Pitt is because his office did an extensive analysis of the systems available before making its selection. Various versions of ACSS have been in use for several years at more than two dozen Association of American Universitiesπ institutions, including Stanford, Brown, Catholic University, Cornell, Columbia, Duke, Iowa State, Ohio State, Syracuse, Colorado, Illinois and Arizona.

Locally, the system is being used by Duquesne University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, West Virginia University and Carnegie Mellon University.

Conte said CMU was one of the first AAU schools in the nation to use the system and that colleagues he has spoken with at the school "have no complaints."

-Mike Sajna

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